Everyone is well aware of the Canadian players in the NCAA tournament, The buzz has been building all year, and rightfully so.
But what about the coaches?
The general public is likely unaware of the fact that there are three Canadian coaches on teams participating in the dance; NMSU Associate Head Coach Paul Weir (Mississauga, ON), American U Assistant Nate Philippe (Toronto, ON), and George Washington Assistant Maurice Joseph (Montreal, QC).
I want to tip my hat off to these three gentlemen.
In my travels and daily interaction with Division one coaches, I’ve built an appreciation for how difficult it is to maintain a coaching position in the basketball business, let alone climb the ladder, and make it to March Madness.
The grind of being a coach at the division one level is unique; from building and maintaining countless relationships to travelling and recruiting, all the way to team / coaches meetings, opponent scouting, in addition to the actual gym work at practice; it’s all part of the job. A labour of love, one that I highly doubt any of these three individuals regret.
I caught up with all three coaches to pick their brains, touching on a variety of topics around their teams, individual careers and their games in the NCAA tournament, some of which begin today!
Paul Weir (Mississauga, ON)
Record: 26-9, WAC Champions
Opponent: #4 seed, San Diego State
This is your 3rd straight trip back to the dance; how has the coaching staff’s mindset changed over the years and how has the team’s changed, going into your first game?
Every team is a little bit different obviously; the good thing is many are returning players so its not a new experience, that’s good thing, or I hope it is…when the ball goes up tomorrow, we’ll find out.
We’ve done things much differently this year from a coaching stadnpoint, compared to last year becuase it wasnt a good outcome. From practice time to preperations, we’ve taken a different approach.
The Canadians that you’ve recruited have been a huge part of the program’s success. What type of feeling does it give you to know that your evaluations and the work you put into get these guys at NMSU has translated so well?
We’ve had some really good succeesss, I think part of it is we have a lot of international kids, there are no stereo types, so they don’t feel like outsiders. There are actually more international kids than there are local at NMSU.
I have to credit my head coach for being open to that…we just have to win.
The success of these Canadians validates evaluation of skills I guess. I think a lot of people who are in coaching have a lot of reasons to recruit players, some good, some bad. For us, its about finding the best player for what we need.
In all cases it been perfrect for us, and vice versa…a good two way street, a partnership where everyone has been happy.They’ve all been really good fits.
Climbing the ladder in the coaching profession (in America) is not easy. How have you been so successful? Has the Canadian card helped you or hurt you through your coaching career?
I think the one beauty of American sport period, is that if you have enough drive and passion for something, there’s going to be opportunity. The way hockey is treated in Canada is the way every other sport is treated in the U.S.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some good fortune…when you’re young and getting into the business, you’re so low on the totem pole, so you’re relying on a lot of other people when it comes to your career, sitting there and observing. Ive been fortunate to be in winning situations.
There are a lot of Canadian kids that I’ve seen and watched and said I really want this kid; Hernst Laroche, Matthew Taylor, Jalyn Pennie was the same way.
For the kids, it’s about coming in with the right mind set, and Daniel Mullings did.
There’s a physcological compment, with these Canadian kids, there’s a toughness that we look for. I think they have a better chance to succeed in this environment if they approach with a chip on their shoulder
Daniel was a unique situation in that he didn’t really do AAU with anybody; a true Canadian, played in high school up there, played OBA, did not have a lot of US exposure, I saw him at Driftwood (community centre) and began recruiting him immediately.
Fortunately he and his mom stayed loyal to us, when his recruitment picked up late in the year.
Daniel Mullings and Sim Bhullar-we’ve talked about these guys before. How has their development been this year and how far are they from being NBA calibre?
I think their both exciting prospects because they both have tremendous upside, and obviously potential is the sexy word when it comes to professional basketball. I think neither are tapped out, both have grown incredibly at NMSU, and both have ways to go. From a numbers stand point, what they’ve done looks good on paper, and looks attractive professionally when you take into account their potential.
We’ve had several NBA scouts interested in Daniel and evaluating him.
What’s the game plan going in against San Diego State?
I think the game itself is going to be a real contrast of styles; we’re really half court oriented, we get the ball inside, shoot a lot of high free throws, and a high field goal percentage.
They are a full court oriented team, play fast, and will trap. The question will be whether the game will be in our tempo or theirs.
We’ve played teams all year that have tried to get us out of what we do; I think we’re excited about the challenge, but at the same time we know the details and finer points to execute, which is what it will come down to.
Nate Philippe (Toronto, ON)
Record: 20-12, Patriot League Champions
Opponent: #2 seed, Wisconsin Badgers
How has the transition been for you from school to school and conference to conference?
It’s been a very smooth transition because I am working with a great group of coaches, players, and support staff here at American University. It’s been a very different move for me because we have a new coaching staff in our first year, so we as a program have all been going through the transition together. AU is a great school, DC is a world-class city, and the whole athletic program is committed to excellence, so it’s been a great situation here. There is definitely an adjustment working with a new team, and learning what works and what doesn’t in a new league, but it is an exciting challenge that our staff embraced.
This is your first NCAA Tournament appearance; describe the feeling for me and the feedback you’ve received?
It’s been a phenomenal past couple of weeks, and it’s been really exciting to be a part of. Obviously our team has been enjoying the ride and playing at a very high level to win a Patriot League Championship and reach the NCAA Tournament. The support that we’ve received from the University community, the Athletic department, our students, alumni, and supporters in general has been amazing! We know we’ve got a lot of people behind us, who are supporting us 100%. On a personal level, reaching the NCAA Tournament is the pinnacle of our profession as coaches, and definitely something I have always aspired to accomplish, so I’m very thankful and excited for the opportunity.
What were the team goals that you and the coaching staff talked about in the beginning of the season?
Mike Brennan, our head coach, did a great job setting expectations with the team when we first got on campus and throughout the season. Consistently he would tell our team that he was not evaluating our team and our progress on wins & losses, it was about constantly getting better every day as individual players and as a team. There was a steep learning curve for our players teaching them brand new offensive and defensive philosophies, and our guys approached every workout, practice, and game with passion, work-ethic, and purpose.
Do you feel like you overachieved, or was winning a conference title something that you guys felt was realistically in reach?
Since we didn’t have a target win-loss record, or a specific goal of winning a championship, I can’t say we under or overachieved. I think from the perspective of how much our guys had to learn working with a new coaching staff, the fact AU was 10-20 the previous year, and the fact we were predicted to finish 9th in the Patriot League by the league’s coaches, I would say we surprised a lot of people, and we as a staff are very proud of how far our team has come. One thing I realized early on was this was an extremely close group that was extremely unselfish, and had phenomenal work ethic from every guy in our program, all signs that were refreshing to work with, and gave us a chance to have success.
How do you feel about recruiting Canada and bringing in recruits to join your program?
Being from Canada, I am proud of how far Canadian basketball has come and am very excited about the talent level of our guys that are making an impact in the NCAA right now, and the guys that have potential to be impact players in the future. I am a proud Canadian through & through, and will continue to recruit Canada hard and work to provide opportunities for our guys to achieve their dreams, have excellent college careers, and prepare for life after college whether that be in basketball or in the real world.
Maurice Joseph (Montreal, QC)
Opponent: #8 Memphis
After your playing days at Michigan State and Vermont, How did you get into coaching?
I played a year professionally in Israel, and then made the transition on an entry level position at GW as an assistant director of operations. I was able to get my feet wet and learn under some great people. There was then a change in staff, and i got promoted…this is my first year as full time assistant.
The last Canadian at George Washington was Dwayne Smith a few years ago (Pickering, ON). Does the program have intentions of digging into Canada moving forward?
It’s a very international scene at GW, we have players from around the world; Greece, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Denmark, Serbia..we have five kids from five different countries + the US, so that’s six. I want to help Canadian kids and see kids get scholarships, of course they have to have the academic background and have the talent. But I love the direction that Canadian basketball is going in.
In your third year at GW and your first as a full-time assistant coach, you’ve already reached the big dance…did you imagine success would hit this quick?
It’s definitely nothing that I did individually that got us to this point. We have six guys on our coaching staff and a great suppport staff…and our AD has been great allocating resources…there are a lot of moving parts that have helped us get from 10 wins to 24 win so quickly.”
We brought in five freshman that have really helped change the culture of this program; it feels great, it feeels rewarding, knowing that we put in so much time and to see it pay off.
GW basketball 6-7 years ago with Pops Menash Bonsu and Mike Hall, was the talk of the down, then fell off a bit, so it’s great that we’re back on the map, we’re proud of that.
How do you manage to balance all the duties of a Divison 1 basketball coach?
Coaching is more than basketball, it’s a multi-faceted job where uou have to wear a lot of different hats; councellor, developer, life coach among other things. They [the kids] look to you for guidance, you have to give it to your all…these young men are depending on you. You’re in the business of helping people.
For this group at GW, this game against Memphis is the biggest one of their careers. When you’re in the locker room with these guys, what is it that the coaching staff stresses to the players?
The mentality going in is not to reinvent the wheel. We’ve had a great season playing the way we play, we’re not going to try and do something we haven’t done before. We’ve been a good defensive team, a good rebounding team and we share the basketball, we feel like we can win against anybody. We have to believe we’re here for a reason, this is not a fluke, we’ve worked hard all year, and we’ve all sacrificed.